I’ve always been interested in the tempo of music, and what effect that has on how we “hear” a song. We can measure tempo precisely, usually in bpm (beats per minute), but performers will often slightly alter tempo from one live performance to the next, which might indicate that the need for tempo precision is not as important as the need for, let’s say, precise melody notes or chords.
Tempo and Athletics
I recently took a look through studies to see what if any research is being done on musical tempo, and how the speed of a song affects our mood. It’s an important issue for songwriters, I believe, because depending on the intended mood of a song, you’ll want to choose a tempo that most effectively enhances that mood.
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The only studies I could find were ones that studied athletic performance and music, specifically how the tempo of music the athlete’s listening to improves (or not) one’s athletic abilities. This 2013 study, for example, found little effect when comparing slow to fast tempo music and its impact on athletic performance, while this 2020 one showed some influence in low intensity workouts.
In the 2013 study, the participants were allowed to choose their own music, but I was unable to find any information for the 2020 study with regard to how music was selected.
The Studies’ Fatal Flaw?
If I were advising these researchers, I would have felt it important to emphasize that all music represents a partnership of elements, tempo being but one, and no one element acts without being influenced by the others.
In other words, a song can be fast and nostalgic, slow and nostalgic, slow and edgy, fast and emotional… you get the idea. And the tempo of the music is only one element in the final formula that we call a song.
So it would seem that the fatal flaw in these studies is allowing participants to choose their own music. By selecting purely for tempo, the study assumes that other aspects of the music — the lyrics, for example — have no particular impact on our psychology. And I find it hard to believe that a heavy metal tune at 110 bpm would have the same effect on us, psychologically speaking, as a dixieland jazz tune would at the same tempo.
Tempo is one aspect that singer-songwriters like to play around with, because it’s easy to do so. You can take a slow song and make it faster (as the Pet Shop Boys did with “Always On My Mind“), and you get to leave all the other structural elements pretty much the same.
It seems lately that many of my blog posts have been coming back to the same point: good songs are a conglomeration of separate elements that all must support each other. The two studies I cited above both miss that important point: no one element controls everything we feel about a song.
For dedicated songwriters, that’s a good thing, because it means that you can affect the mood and impact of a song through a variety of ways. Your instincts may tell you that to pump up a song you should speed it up a bit, but in fact, there are many ways to do it.
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